PBS Frontline: 'The Dark Side'

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Michael Kirk
Producer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006; 11:00 AM

Producer Michael Kirk was online Wednesday, June 21, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his PBS Frontline film, "The Dark Side" , a look at Vice President Dick Cheney 's turf battles with the CIA and director George Tenet for control in the war on terror. The film examines intelligence and reports leading up to the invasion of Iraq and the internal tension that simmered beforehand. The leak scandal surrounding Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby , and the comments of former CIA officers have added to the public dissension over the war on terror.

PBS Frontline's "The Dark Side" will air Tuesday, June 20, at 9 p.m. ET ( check local listings ).

The transcript follows.

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Pittsburgh, Pa: First of all, congratulations. A beautifully constructed report. It leaves several questions unanswered (why did so many people go along for the ride?), but an upsetting, well-produced piece.

Can I purchase the program on DVD?

Michael Kirk: Thank you. The response has been gratifying, and the ratings were very strong, which tells us people are interested in this matter to a very high degree. DVD's can be purchased at ShopPBS.org....(how's that for a commercial right away....)

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Fairfax, Va: The program last night was close to riveting and would seem to suggest that the VP has been quite active for his disclosed and undisclosed locations. Why do you and perhaps a number of the interviewees conclude that Cheney is the "most powerful" VP in the history of the country? It normally takes historians a large number of years to draw any such conclusions. Who is able to speak so authoritatively on the inner workings of the Cheney-Rumsfeld relationship so key to the conclusions of the program?

Michael Kirk: Vice President Cheney has constructed (as more than one of our interviewees told us) a substantial national security staff; he has placed throughout the government people who have previously worked with him and who share his political and policy orientation, and the president delegated much of foreign policy and national security to the vice president. That is how we came to the conclusion he is the most powerful VP in history.

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The Real World: Last night I sat motionless for an hour and a half watching your show; probably my mouth was hanging open most of that time. I suspected that the Bush administration had stretched the truth, but I was flabbergasted to find out that they did even worse than that. I wish everyone could see and hear these largely unknown experts tell about their experiences.

My question: did any of them ever express any regret that they didn't resign and go public back when it might have done some good. Did they think that perhaps they could have affected the public debate by doing so?

I'm wondering especially about the gentleman who spoke of keeping his resignation letter in his desk drawer. He seemed rueful, but I wonder.

My question isn't meant to imply condemnation. I can fully appreciate how difficult such a step can be for an individual.

Michael Kirk: Many powerful people contemplate resignation when they disagree with the policy their are asked to support. But few join that very rare club. We asked almost everyone we interviewed why they believed Secretary Powell and Director Tenet did not resign (if in fact they did disagree with the Bush Administration policies on the war). Most of them said people like Tenet and Powell often believe that by leaving they leave vacant the moderate position they articulate behind closed doors--i.e., they feel certain someone less in their camp would replace them, and matters would become even worse (from their point of view).

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Martinsville, Ind: Did you find those who were interviewed for the program willing to talk openly about their sensitive knowledge and experience, or were they fearful of saying too much?

Michael Kirk: A little of both, depending on who I was interviewing. There was, I must say, a feeling that I had, that many really wanted to finally tell their stories. (The fuller interviews with a number of them--most lasting as long as a couple of hours--can be read on www.pbs.org/frontline/darkside)

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Alexandria, Va: All I can say is wow ! That was one of the best Frontlines ever !

But let me ask you a hard and, perhaps, leading question. Is this more political infighting with the purged CIA staff paying back the VP ? Or is this the beginning of the real truth telling ?

Michael Kirk: Clearly some of the CIA officers who spoke to us wanted the opportunity to tell their side of the story. We of course didn't just provide them a forum--it is our responsibility to measure what they said against the public record, the documents being acquired by government agencies and prosecutors and other, off the record interviews we conducted. We regret that the Office of the Vice President would not help us understand their position by talking to us with equal openness.

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New York, NY: I remember when asked about Haliburton, Cheney said he did not know why Haliburton got all those no-bid contracts.

Does Cheney still get money from Haliburton?

Why did you leave Haliburton out of the documentary?

Michael Kirk: I believe the vice president, like many public officials is required to keep his financial matters in a blind trust and is periodically required to report his income to the public. We did not believe the vice president's relationship to Haliburton was relevant to our story--which was about powerful forces within the administration fighting to control the orientation and direction of the war on terror.

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Chicago, Ill: I found your program riveting.

My question is did no one from the Bush Administration vehemently argue with your thesis while you were filming?

I would think they would have preferred some type of defense...not true?

Michael Kirk: I would have hoped so too. Someday I would like to have the opportunity to present the questions and the evidence we have accumulated over the last few years,(and 5 documentary films) to someone in a position to know from the upper echelon of the Bush administration.

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Fairfax, Va: Do you know if there will be another showing on PBS?

Michael Kirk: I believe the program is usually rerun during the week on most PBS stations and can be seen after 5 pm est today on the FRONTLINE website--www.pbs.org/frontline/darkside

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Greensboro, NC: Why do you suppose it has taken the press so long to catch on to what has been taking place over the past six years?

It seems to me that once again the "liberal" media hesitated to cover "conservatives" for fear of appearing to have a bias. How can this be remedied?

Michael Kirk: The word "press" is now too amorphous to have much meaning. There are so many ways bits and pieces of big news events are now consumed that it's hard to talk about it as a monolith.

The "big" media--a handful of daily newspapers and networks (including "big" cable) have chipped away at this story for years. FRONTLINE takes as part of its mission the job of connecting the dots along the timeline of a big story. That's what we tried to do here.

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Boothbay, Maine: I am reading criticisms of the program. People are saying that it was too one sided. Why were there not more interviewees who felt that the Bush/Cheney assessments were correct? They say that of course disgruntled CIA employees would see Cheney as a 'dark force.' How would you answer those criticisms?

Michael Kirk: I disagree. I believe we told a narrative along an historical timeline, based on public record, documents, archive footage and years of interviews with people who know and have lived this story. This is the fifth film about this general topic we've done since 9/11. The CIA plays a role in this film because some of them were prepared to share their observations about what happened in the struggle with the Office of the Vice President. There were many other voices in this film, and all of our other films. I am confident the story we are telling is true, accurate and fair.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Dear Mr. Kirk,

Why didn't you address Dick Cheney's association with JINSA (Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs) which (along with PNAC - Project for the New American Century which Cheney was also associated with as his wife is a fellow up at the American Enterprise Institute where PNAC was based under PNAC chairman Bill Kristol) were the main driving force for the Iraq war (with the pro-Israel lobby - AIPAC - leading the charge as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have so accurately outlined in their excellent paper which mentions JINSA and PNAC as well - why no mention of Mearsheimer/Walt paper in your documentary?).

Michael Kirk: Thank you for your question. The Project for the New American Century was addressed in our film, "Gunning for Saddam"(which aired in EARLY November 2001 (www.pbs.org/frontline/shows/gunning), and in the film "War Behind Closed Doors"(www.pbs.org/frontline/shows/Iraq).

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Hammond, Ind: Congratulations on a really well-done piece last night on Frontline. Although I felt that I already knew many parts of the story, mostly from reading a variety of print material, I do not think I have seen anything like it before on TV. It was important, I thought to see the entire story from beginning to end. Have you gotten the sense that many viewers were surprised by much of the story---in other words, were not already familiar with many of the parts of the story?

Michael Kirk: Read the discussion on our Web site...it is an amazing example of democracy in action--many sides and shapes of opinion about the war and the policies that lead up to it are expressed. We are pleased the documentary could spark such a debate--www.pbs.org/frontline/darkside and then look for "join the discussion"

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Charleston, SC: I hope that the editing of the Frontline piece is not reflected in the editing of the questions you have decided to answer on this chat. It seems remarkable that the only questions answered are supportive of your premise in the piece and clearly come from individuals that have long ago decided that Dick Cheney was evil. Surely, there are some questions that are not so lavishing in their praise or are those edited out, maybe a lot like facts that did not match the premise of your piece.

Michael Kirk: I am taking these questions in order, as quickly as I can.

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San Antonio, Tex.: How much of an enabler do you believe Condoleezza Rice was in the run-up to the Iraq war? She is mentioned rather briefly in your program, and her news clip is relatively short. Do you see her as an incredibly weak National Security Advisor, whose loyalty to the Bushes overrode her duties and common sense? Should she have replaced Colin Powell as Secretary of State?

Michael Kirk: As to Secretary Rice--most of the people we interviewed felt she was just getting up to speed in her position as National Security Advisor when 9/11 happened. At that moment, as our broadcast indicates, powerful men engaged in a struggle for control of the political and military directions of the war on terror. Ms. Rice was, according to many of them, significant as a conduit of information to the president and moderator of the principals meetings.

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Burbank, Calif: Can you provide any information on the origins of the forged Niger papers? Some people believe Michael Ledeen was involved.

Thanks.

Michael Kirk: There are many theories...too many for our resources to have absorbed during the production of this film. Once we established to our satisfaction that the documents were forged, we left it at that.

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Cleveland Ohio: Did you speak with Robert Baer during your research for the program?

Michael Kirk: We don't really talk about who we pre-interview or use as sources.

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Malvern, Pa: Excellent Frontline program.

As much as I dislike the entire Bush team for the way the Iraq fiasco has been handled, didn't Cheney have a point in believing that we've been fooled in the past by Saddam and we can't take the chance by being conservative anymore?

Michael Kirk: Yes. The vice president's skepticism about the reliability of CIA information was appropriate given his history with the agency. As we point out in the program, they have been wrong a lot--they missed significant parts of the end of the cold war; they missed the Iranian revolution; they missed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, they missed the Indian nuclear weapon, and the list goes on.

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Philadelphia, Pa: Why have you presented only a one-sided slant on these events. Never during the show were the accused asked questions or given the chance to present their view. This isn't journalism, its a hit piece, and certainly not a 'slam dunk' when it comes to fooling people.

Michael Kirk: I'm sorry you feel that way. Let me help you understand that we researched this material on and off for nearly five years. We relied on hundreds of pages of testimony, thousands of pages of documents, more than a hundred interviews, and countless off the record conversations to put together the narrative of this program.

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Washington DC: Great program. I was tremendously impressed with the level of access and information you were able to obtain from former CIA personnel.

I am wondering what your take is on how involved the president was in the OVP's interaction with the CIA. In watching the show, it seemed like by the time much of this information was presented to the president, significant turf wars had already played out between the OVP and the CIA. Was the president privy to any of that do you think?

Michael Kirk: It is interesting to note the way the president is insulated from a certain level of debate and involvement in the matters we were talking about. We certainly don't mean to imply he is not weighing in, but the way the story is told to us, he ceded a great deal of the foreign policy and national security brief to the vice president. Some have told us he likes the model of being a CEO or Chairman of the Board. That would be consistent with what the public record demonstrates as well.

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Syracuse, NY: Michael-

Well done but be prepared for the attacks that you're a

left-wing blah, blah, blah. So I wonder . . . with material

this sensitive how much control do you have over the final

product? How do you as a producer, vet this material, and

what's the process you go through to make sure you're

telling the story as well as you can without getting

preachy or too one-sided?

Michael Kirk: FRONTLINE, after nearly 25 years on the air has a highly developed editorial oversight procedure. And as a producer, I have what I believe are high standards of quality control and fact checking too (I suppose I couldn't have continued to work in this business for more than 3 decades without being careful and as fair as possible). We can all make mistakes, of course, but it isn't because we haven't' tried very hard to check and recheck every fact in a film.

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Lancaster, Pa: Have you received or heard of any feedback from the administration on the documentary?

Michael Kirk: We have not yet heard from the White House or the vice president's office. Maybe they'll offer us an opportunity to ask them the questions presented in the film.

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Dearborn, Mich: I wonder if Cheney himself watched this program. After reading the comments by his peers on pbs.org, most had nothing but good things to say about him.

Michael Kirk: I certainly hope he did. And I hope he will have someone call me so we can arrange an interview about these important matters.

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Michael Kirk: Thank you for your comments. I hope we'll have the opportunity to talk next fall after the next installment of our films about the war on terror.--Michael Kirk

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